Robert Morris' Northeast Conference quarterfinals win Thursday against Monmouth wasn't a few minutes old before Colonials coach Andy Toole told his team to start thinking about the next goal: a semifinals matchup against second-seeded Wagner.
"We talked about in the locker room that this was step one of hopefully a couple more steps," Toole said. "And they need to start to prepare themselves tonight, so that, when Sunday comes around, they're physically as well as mentally prepared."
The second half of that equation -- mental readiness -- may be especially important, considering the result of the Colonials' first game against Wagner this season.
The Seahawks jumped to a 14-2 first-half lead against Robert Morris Feb. 2 and never looked back, winning, 80-69. The Colonials made a late run, but were doomed by the slow start.
- Matchup: Robert Morris (23-9) vs. Wagner (25-5), noon today, Spiro Sports Center, Staten Island, N.Y. NEC tournament semifinals.
- TV, radio, Internet: PCNC, WMNY-AM (1360), rmucolonials.com.
- Robert Morris: Beat Monmouth, 87-68, Thursday in the NEC quarterfinals. ... Leading scorer Velton Jones (16.5 ppg) notched his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 assists vs. the Hawks. ... Coron Williams set an NEC tournament single-game record with eight 3-pointers against Monmouth. ... Appearing in its fifth consecutive NEC semifinals and has reached the final each of the past three seasons.
- Wagner: Coming off 87-77 win Thursday against seventh-seeded Central Connecticut State. ... Sophomore guard Kenneth Ortiz, the NEC's defensive player of the year, scored 16 points vs. the Blue Devils. ... Beat Robert Morris, 80-69, Feb. 2. ... Head coach Danny Hurley is in his second season with the Seahawks (38-22 overall).
- Hidden stat: In Andy Toole's 64 games as head coach, the Colonials have held opponents less than 70 points in 44 games. In those contests, Robert Morris is 35-9.
"We didn't come out with the energy that we needed to," Toole said.
Robert Morris didn't get the win, but the Wagner game seemed to serve as a sort of turning point for the Colonials, who held Wagner to 38.1 percent shooting in the second half, down from 60 percent in the first. That built the foundation for the Colonials to win six of their last seven games heading into the NEC playoffs. They easily handled Monmouth, 87-68, in the opening round.
Toole pointed out that the biggest difference since that first game against the Seahawks has been the increase in defensive intensity. After allowing 80 points against Wagner, Robert Morris has given up an average of 60.8 per game since. After the win against Monmouth, Toole emphasized how that defense-first mentality is more important in the postseason.
"Every time you have a breakdown, every time you try and cut a corner, every time you try and relax or stand up or take a play off, you're going to be taken advantage of," he said. "And, every time you do that, you're jeopardizing your season continuing. That's the mindset we have to have going into the game: that every bucket they get, they're really going to have to earn."
The Colonials also have shown signs of offensive growth since early February. Against Wagner, redshirt junior guard Velton Jones scored three points on 2-for-15 shooting. While his scoring output hasn't increased, Jones has found ways to be a more diverse weapon.
In the Colonials' six-game winning streak late in the season, he averaged 12.3 points per game, but had games with six, seven and eight assists. Over that stretch, he took more than 10 shots once.
Jones had perhaps his best performance Thursday. He opened with two four-point plays in the first 2:16, but didn't score again until the last five minutes of the game. He tied a career-high with 10 assists and notched his first career double-double.
"They started doubling and, when I drove to the lane, they were converging well," he said. "I couldn't get shots up, so I had to do something else and I found my teammates."
If Jones and his teammates can find that same rhythm at both ends in the second go-round against Wagner, the Colonials certainly will have a good shot at their fourth consecutive NEC championship-game appearance.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SWernerPG.